Fall 2019


That Sinking Feeling

In Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right, evidence of an affair sparks an epiphany the audience can feel from the inside out

By Rob Feld

In Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right, Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are a married couple, each of whom bore a child from the same sperm donor, Paul (Mark Ruffalo). As Nic and Jules experience challenges in their marriage, their children's curiosity sparks a hunt for their biological father and the discovery of Paul. The parents allow Paul into their children's lives but his bohemian style soon rufes the more conservative Nic. Meanwhile Jules, who has started a landscape design business after prior failures, goes to work on Paul's home, where a secret afair between them soon begins.

To further complicate matters, conflict has been bubbling between Paul and Nic because she feels his permissiveness with the kids is undermining her. A family dinner at Paul's house is planned to smooth things over. As the scene begins, Paul is on full charm ofensive and fnds Nic's soft spot through a mutual appreciation of Joni Mitchell. Her skepticism seemingly assuaged, Nic ultimately announces her approval of Paul. Nevertheless, Nic discovers evidence of the afair, which provides a major character moment for her.

"It's a naturalistic setup," says Cholodenko. "It's like a comedy of manners around the table, and there's some funny stuf. It's near the climax of the flm and a centerpiece performance for Annette Bening. You can tell there's some dread at the table but everyone is hoping it turns out all right. And it seems for a minute like it might. But when Nic fnds the evidence of the afair, I think we wrote it: 'She feels like she's sinking in cement.' She enters a traumatized, altered state. She pulls herself out of it but you know the shit's going to hit the fan in the next scene."

I really wanted this to feel like Paul's space—dimly lit, groovy bachelor, hipster, Echo Park pad. Nic's uncomfortable in Paul's house. The kids, Paul and Jules are making their dinner and Nic's trying to relax. She picks up this record, one of her favorites—Joni Mitchell's Blue—which becomes her moment to soften. We're back-and-forth, there's coverage of her looking at lyrics, and it gives us time to realize [that] this is a transitional moment. Now she likes this guy. I kept them soft in the background but when the camera does go back there, we see Jules looking at Nic, and that is what's important: that the two of them are actually weirdly alone in this scene. Nic is the odd man out, awkward, not part of the clan yet.

Paul and Nic start to bond over another thing they have in common: their love of rare red meat. A lot of the conversation is improvised—I let them rif, here, not knowing how much I was going to use. But Nic is over the top, really trying to bond with Paul. Everybody's a little bit repulsed and doesn't quite get where their mom is coming from. They catch that she's altered, in some weird bonding zone with Paul. It's hard to do these dinner table scenes with props and everything. My DP, Igor (Jadue-Lillo), and I had a good shorthand. We looked around the room, thought about the light and strategized our setups.

We tried to light the space so that we could have maximum shooting options, but wanted a mood—just catching dusk—that felt warm, good, safe, intimate. We didn't have a lot of money or time but we tried to pay close attention to how we were lighting the table and what we needed to see around it. We wanted a contrast between Paul's dark, romantic world and [Nic and Jules'] suburban family world. Paul is a narcissist so he's conveniently compartmentalized the fact that he's sleeping with Jules. He thinks this dinner is a positive thing he's doing for her. He's being the dad. He's being ingratiating. He's being a good host. And Nic's falling for it.

Jules has this wishful thinking that this night's going to be okay—the guy she's cheating on Nic with is right there. So, she's dying inside. I had coverage of each person and we had to just keep going around and around in the cutting room saying, "Who do we want to see right now and where are they emotionally?" We were not going to shoot every person with six diferent lenses. So we made some hard and fast decisions that would help us cut them most efciently, but we spent time fnding the scene in the cutting room. I hoped I had enough material to get the subtext, comedy and punctuation I wanted.

I didn't have a lot of room in the apartment so there's some subtle movement around the table, but I didn't want the camera to be busy. I wanted it to be on them. I thought, "If I can keep this part of it restrained, then I can do something heightened and tripped-out later when Nic goes into her fugue state, if I haven't moved the camera a ton before I get there." We wanted to be efcient with the lighting but also naturalistic so that we didn't indicate that much for the audience. I wanted to let the night unfold so that you weren't ahead of it.

Annette is a master so you don't talk deep minutiae of performance with her. Hopefully it's in the script, and after several conversations, I left it to her to interpret it and know what I'm talking about. Here, Nic wants to agree and bond with Paul and she gets strangely exaggerated, while Mark plays it naturalistically. It's like they're falling in love in a way and it's really weird and inappropriate and loaded with subtext. I could have backed up and gone wider on the table but I didn't want to give the audience some master shot and the opportunity to step back and regroup. I wanted the claustrophobia of, "What does this feel like?" We're stuck at this table and I wanted to be as objectively in their experience as I could be. It just didn't feel like there was great value in difusing that tension by stepping back.

We shot close with a shallow depth of field and kept the lighting in contrast between the light at the table and beyond the table. I wanted to accentuate the feeling that this dinner could go from warm and intimate to claustrophobic and alienating. There's a lot of time spent going around this table watching this performance. Nic is zeroed in on Paul, singing this Joni Mitchell song and going down her own path. She's isolating herself, out of the joke in a way. She's been abstaining from drinking because Jules has been giving her a hard time about drinking too much. But after they fnish their song, she gets up, decides she's loose and will have a glass. She's light on her feet and says, "Excuse me, I'm going to go to the restroom."

You feel like Nic has come down to earth and feels safe after being so erratic, but the stakes are now raised. Paul is trying to keep it light but he's not doing a great job of reassuring Jules, nor could he. He's playing a lot of people here. I think we know in the pits of our stomachs, though, that something's going to go down. Julianne Moore's character was a landscape architect and the conceit required us to find a place she could work on and that we could see in phases. We shot in a small house on the top of a hill in Echo Park. We chose this house mainly because it had a huge untouched, hillside backyard that the owner was willing to let us landscape.

Nic walks in like all is well but then sees a brush on the shelf with red hair like Jules' on it. She looks in the tub and sees that there's red hair in the drain, as well. Now she knows something is not good. We had it handheld because we had to get a lot done and wanted it to be freer and less formal, as if now things are becoming unglued. I think the audience is kind of expecting the discovery without knowing how it's going to happen or when. Maybe they'll have this nice dinner and then it will be revealed at home. We did our best not to reveal, as we called it, the 'red hairing' of the red hair in the bathroom. And I think we buried that pretty well.

Nic leaves the bathroom in stealth mode, really troubled. All this conversation at the table was improvised as she sneaks past them and into Paul's bedroom where she sees Jules' hair tie. Finding this wood-paneled screen that she could walk discreetly past was a big difculty. It had to be appropriate for that really small apartment and Paul's world. Nic is ashen, gut punched, and furious when she returns—just a grab bag of bad feelings. We shot this on 35mm film, which I love using for all the reasons everyone else does.

Nic goes into a fugue state and the world falls away. The biggest question was, "What's the vision for this freak-out?" I knew it was going to be both visual and auditory. I kept thinking about Roman Polanski's Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby, where the protagonists are tripping. The camera's close to their faces, maybe a wide angle. There's something simple and stark that happens, but visceral. We shot this part toward the end of the night, put the camera on a slider and over-cranked it, pushing it around as Nic looks around the table.

The camera move was free, in a way. We did it a few times and in a few ways but I knew the overall use would be to intercut between all these characters around the table. I wanted to make sure that Nic had eye-lines and that she was moving, that she wasn't frozen. Here, Jules can look up at her like, "Oh shit. Why are you glaring at me?" She's riddled with fear and defensiveness, gripped. Nic is imploding. She turns in. The world drops out. It was my version of what does that feel like to be in shock? You're trapped and in a disassociated place.

I worked with a sound designer for quite a while trying to fgure out what it sounds like when you're in a state of shock or trauma. What's going on with your ears and the blood rushing to them? Are you hearing your own heartbeat? Are you hearing your own breath? What natural sounds might there be? What surreal sounds? The sound drops out. Then there's muted dialogue. The strategy was to say, "How do we do this so that it fts with a subjectivity?" She's there, not there. It allows the conversation to bleed in and out, more layered in certain areas and less in others.

I loved working with Annette and Julianne because they were so open to being photographed without makeup (or much makeup). It was really important to me that they looked like real people in real life and not in a movie. Here, sound returns to normal and Nic comes out of that state. She's resolved to put on the best face she can to get through the last horrifying hour of this evening. I think when Nic comes back to earth, she gets her power back. It's heartbreaking but she's back, reintegrated, and trusts herself. So, here she endures that traumatized experience and it makes her a stronger person.

Photos: (Top) HBO/Photofest ; Screenpulls: Universal Pictures Home Entertainment